In the summer of 2012 the Dutch composer
Walter Hekster and his wife Alice van Leuvan Hekster who had been a fellow
classmate of my wife, Jean, and me at Meriden (CT) High School, class of 1952,
came to visit us in Dresden Mills, Maine, from their summer home in Higganum,
Connecticut. The four of us had a fine time, but Walter began to feel under the
their visit we were all supposed to attend our M.H.S. 60th class reunion, but
when Jean and I arrived we discovered that Walter had returned to The
Netherlands to see his doctors because he felt so ill.
I was in touch with Alice all fall, keeping tabs on
Walter -- for whom I had on several occasions been librettist, so we had been
expecting the sorry news of his passing. When I sent our condolences to Alice
she replied, “Oh Lew, thanks. You know how sick Walt was, and it just got
worse. I was with him and his Light just went out on New Years Eve.”
On Feb 8, 2013, Alice wrote, “We are going
to put Walt's ashes into the harbor here on Sunday the 17th (his wish)…. My
Auntie Margy is coming and I hope Marie [Delemarre Ho, also a classmate]. One
of my friends wrote a poem for the occasion, in Dutch. Could you?
Margy and Marie came [from the U. S.] yesterday! I can't believe it. Marie and
Margy and I loved it [the epitaph]! It was a beautiful day and a swan came by
with signets and got covered with Walt's ash.
This is the playlet I wrote that was
first published in Polemic of Western
Reserve University (now Case-Western Reserve of Cleveland, OH) Vol. XI, No. 1,
Winter, 1966; it was used as the libretto for The Fog: Chamber Opera in One Act
commissioned by the Twents Conservatorium, Enschede, Holland; music by Walter
Hekster, libretto by Lewis Turco, Amsterdam: Donemus, 1987. Folio, paper.
FOG: A CHAMBER OPERA IN ONE ACT
personae: Character A, Character B, and a Voice.
lights down, curtain up.
A bare stage. Two figures are seen standing center stage. It is difficult to
make out whether the figures are male or female, for a thick mist rolls in from
both stage right and stage left. One of the figures speaks.
Aren’t we supposed to get somewhere sometime? When are we going to get there?
It’s too soon to tell. Not enough time has passed.
(it is big and resonant). You’re almost there now. Don’t give up. You’ve almost
Who was that? What was that voice?
That was some Being who watches over us. I think it was God.
What kind of Being? It’s hard to make out any shape in this fog. I can heardly
see you, let alone a Voice. You look as though your body is made of shadow.
It’s possible I’m not even here. You could be talking to yourself. On the other
hand, perhaps I’m here and you’re not. Maybe the mist is a mirror.
I’ve thought of that. I’ve given that very thing a good deal of reflection as
we’ve been going along. But I can hear you breathing. Are you making this mist
with your breath? If so, I wish you’d cut it out so I can see God. I’d like to
find out who it is that’s talking to us.
We’re talking to each other. There’s no one else on this road.
But I think I heard a third voice. It came from somewhere overhead, I think.
Pay no attention. Just keep going.
The voice gave me courage. I’d like to hear it again.
What’s wrong with my voice? Isn’t the sound I make enough for you?
Yes.... No. That is, maybe. But what if it’s not your voice? What if it’s just
Then it’s an echo. It’s you giving yourself courage. So what? Isn’t that
I don’t think so. I don’t want to be alone with myself in all this fog. It’s a
frightening thing to think that I have to make it on my own. I don’t think I
could do it.
Where is it you think you’re going? Do you have a map?
No, and that’s why it’s frightening. I don’t trust my sense of direction.
There doesn’t seem to be any direction out here. Every way looks like every
That’s the other thing that’s bothering me. Even if I could trust my sense of
direction, I couldn’t trust the directions themselves.
Then why bother worrying? Just keep going. Follow me and don’t look back.
That’s the third thing. If I follow you, who am I following? And why should I
trust you any more than I trust myself? You might even be myself — we’ve been
all over that. I’d rather follow God. Maybe He can see better from up there — I
wish He’d speak again.
Keep going. You’re almost there.
There! There He is again. Let’s go.
Lead the way. I’m right behind you.
I thought I was following you! I thought you knew the way.
You’re leading now. I didn’t hear Him.
That’s very strange. His voice was clear as a bell.
He must have been talking to you alone. You’re in charge now. Which way?
The way we’re going must be right. He said we were almost there.
We’ve been standing still. We haven’t moved an inch.
That’s the fourth thing. The fog seems to be getting thicker. We’d better hold
hands so we don’t get lost. It would be death to be separated.
Now I’m beginning to be frightened. Here’s my hand.
Something solid at last! You’re not just my reflection after all.
Perhaps not. Anything is possible.
We still haven’t moved. Do you suppose we should try?
bell begins to ring offstage, and it continues to ring throughout the next
I was wondering when you’d get here. How do you do? I’m very happy to meet you
both. This is it. This is the end in view. (The bell stops ringing.)
Did you hear something just then? I thought I heard a bell ringing in the fog.
It was the wind, I think. Perhaps the mist is lifting a little.
Maybe so. Let’s wait here a little while and see if it clears up.
All right. I can wait.
figures stand together in the fog. A bell-buoy begins ringing somewhere
offstage and continues to ring for a while after all stage lights fade out and
all house lights down and out. Curtain.
When I was five years of age my brother, Gene, was
born in Meriden, Connecticut. His middle
name is "Laurent" — the male version of "Laura," my
mother’s middle name, just as my first name is “Lewis,” the English version of
“Luigi,” and my middle name is “Putnam,” my mother’s maiden name. It was many
years before I realized the derivation of "Gene": it is the American
version of "Gino," which is short for "Luigi" — my father
had named both his sons after himself!
In my second collection of poems, a chapbook titled The Sketches of Lewis Turco and Livevil: A Mask (1962), I wrote
about our childhood:
"Ragtail Gene, don't tag along here;
on home or I'll bop your nose."
Brother, come the first of April,
was the word the second of May
all you heard when our lead pipe cannon
a cherry bomb and belched a stone
boomed across the Fourth of July,
crocking you where you hid
on all the older kids.
If the world grew huger in your eyes,
was because they went wide
hear the clubhouse secrets told
dark garage where gasoline
about good enough to swill.
For, the first you knew of going,
knew because we swore our raft
not a raft, but a ship to float
boy's body out of sight
man's voice too deep for sounding.
That's the way that I am going;
Gene, don't tag along here.
When I was in the eighth grade my father sent me
off to Suffield Academy in Suffield, Connecticut. He told me that he was doing it to give me
the best education he could, but he evidently told my brother that he sent me
away to save Gene's life. I don't
recollect that I was all that homicidal toward my sibling. The worst thing I remember doing was tying
him to the porch of the parsonage on Windsor Avenue when I was supposed to be
baby-sitting him. I wanted to play with
my neighborhood buddies instead, and I knew he was safe because I could hear
One weekend while I was in the Navy and Gene was in
high school I came back on liberty to Meriden and discovered that he had gotten
himself into some sort of trouble. Papa and Mom May talked to me about it in
distress, and I think I must have become angry, because I wrote “The Hustle”:
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem, "The Hustle."
O your eyes are slightly wondered,
They allow the world's been sundered,
So you travel with your brothers:
Not the flesh-and-blood kind — others
Who deplore the ways of fathers,
There are rods and there are women,
You're a rebel, you're a demon,
You were spawned beneath the atom
On a lower social stratum.
People stink, and so you hate 'em,
What's a lifetime's secret essence,
Is it kooky adolescence,
Is it ninety miles per hour,
Is it acting beat and dour,
Or professionally sour?
We will halve the world and share it,
Call half minah, call half parrot,
In our monstrous aviaries
We will ostracize canaries...,
Any bird that sings or varies
Then we'll blow the whole bit higher,
Than the sun shoots tongues of fire,
For commitment's too much trouble;
Prick the big dream like a bubble.
You can be the final rebel,
It was very strange, it seemed to me, that Gene had
gotten into a scrape because he was, and still is, a very nice guy. He had
never been a minute’s trouble all his childhood, to my recollection, except
that he was accident-prone. Strange things happened to him: once he walked
through the smoke of a bonfire — in those days one could burn leaves in the
fall — and came down with a case of poison-ivy all over his body. Another time
he and some of his friends were playing with a BB gun and he was shot in the
eye which split his cornea. For most of our lives we have gotten along pretty
well, our wives like each other, and our kids all get along on those few
occasions when they get together. The poem is an over-reach, over-the-top.
Reading it now, it seems to me that I was writing about the 1950s, not my
Jean and I had graduated from Meriden High in 1952.
Two or three years later rock-n-roll had arrived, the new teen-agers were acting
quite strangely, wearing d. a. hairdos (that’s “duck’s ass” in case anyone
wonders) and developing the culture that would eventually lead to American Graffiti, Hair, James Dean’s Rebel
without a Cause and the Beatniks. My wife and I had grown up in the
post-World War II culture, where the last days of swing and bebop and bobbysox
were fading into the unsettling and ominous future.
One of the
most common, and most unanswerable questions a poet is asked is, “Where do you
get your ideas from?” It’s as though people expect one to say someplace
specific, as though every idea were born in the same place and, if they knew
where that was, maybe they could become writers too. My standard answer is, “I
have a guy in Chicago who sends me new material every month.”
That’s a lie, of course, but then poets are
prevaricators by profession. In the early 1960s the poet Miller Williams
participated in a writers' conference held at the Cleveland Poetry Center of
Fenn College, now Cleveland State University, where he made a number of cogent
comments, but in the course of a panel discussion on "The Poet's
Masks" he said one thing in particular that I have remembered ever since:
"The poet lies to tell the truth."
As an illustration of this thesis Miller used an incident that involved
his son: One day the boy ran into the
house and said, "A lion's chasing me!" Of course, there was no lion in the yard, but
out of courtesy to childhood Williams looked, and there was a lion in the yard...in the form of a fair sized dog.
The point Miller made was that to an adult
the animal was a dog, but the quality of the boy's experience was that he had
been threatened by something as large and menacing to him as a lion would be to
an adult, so the child had "lied" in order to convey the magnitude of
the experience to an older person.
doesn’t recall where a motivating idea comes from, but in the case of the poem
following I recall reading in a periodical long ago an essay by or about
R. D. Laing, author of Knots, who, though himself a poet, made
his living as a psychiatrist. Laing quoted one of his patients who said, “I am
the ghost of the weed garden.”
remember whether I finished reading the article because that line stopped me in
my tracks. I knew I had to do something with it, for it was burrowing into my
brain evoking…I knew not what, nor would I know until I wrote about it. In
order to do that, though, I needed the other inhabitants of that weed garden,
the herbs and plants among whom Laing’s patient lived.
I was a book collector (what writer isn’t?) and I owned an old copy of John Quincy’s Pharmacopoeia Officinalis &
Extemporanea. Or, A Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts, published
in London by Thomas Longman in 1742, “Twelfth edition, enlarged and corrected.”
It was bound in full contemporary calf with raised bands, blind-stamped borders
and designs, but a modern leather label that I had made to replace the missing
one. Its covers had been reattached with leather strapping at the top and
bottom edges. The rear cover had been damaged, perhaps by acid, but I had
refilled the holes with pieced leather. It was the perfect volume to tell me
what I needed to know:
THE WEED GARDEN
On a line by a mental patient, with reference to Quincy's An English Dispensatory.
am the thing you
fear in the simple of your blood:
toothwort in the dust, feverfew, mouse-ear,
sundew and cup-moss, tormentils.
An idea can happen any time, anywhere.
According to David Eagleman in his 2011 book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain we have any number of
secret “selves” or systems working beneath our “consciousness mind,” which is
actually a very small portion of our brain. “Ideas” bubble up from some sort of
subliminal brain committee that is forever working to keep us alive.A poem may begin with a single word —
for instance, I heard a word on television one morning. I was watching the
weather forecast and the forecaster said, "When will the snow do what it's
supposed to do?" But instead of "snow do" I heard "snow-dew."
That word fascinated me. I don't know where that idea is going to lead, but
perhaps eventually something will click, one of my subconscious committees will
put that word into some kind of context for me, and I'll be able to write a
On another occasion I'd been collecting
such words and making a list of them, hoping I'd eventually find a place to use
them, but I never did. It was a short list — "twilleter" is a
neologism, meaning a kind of insect, from Alistair Reed's children’s book Ounce, Dice, Trice; "common goatsucker,”
is another name for the nighthawk, one of my favorite words, but I tend to
overuse it; "clum," which I ran across in the Oxford English Dictionary, is an ancient synonym for “silence.”
Finally I got tired of waiting for
"inspiration' to strike, and my conscious mind decided to write a poem and
use all of the words, just to get rid of them. So I did, and as I was typing up
the final draft (yes, “typing” — this was back in the ‘seventies, as I recall),
I meant to write the word "slicing," but it accidentally came out
"sliving." I looked at that typo and decided it was more descriptive
than the word I'd intended to use, so I kept it. Years later, long after I’d
written the poem, I serendipitously ran across the verb "to slive" in
a book of archaic words, Charles MacKay’s Lost
Beauties of the English Language published in 1874. It meant, "to do
anything furtively or slyly; to sneak, to skulk." It turned out to be
another ancient word and not a neologism after all! I wonder which of my
subconscious systems understood that. Anyway, this is the poem I, or several of
my selves, wrote from my word list:
So ideas come from everywhere; I guess all
one need do is be receptive, keep one's ears open for sounds and one's eyes
open for images. A poet, above all other writers, is interested in language.
That's his or her material, You keep your ears open for language and your mind
open to impressions.
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.